Except of course, it isn’t!
I’ll admit that even as a workplace wellbeing and employee experience expert, as the phrase Psychological Safety crept its way into the common business lexicon, I found it to be a real turn off and frankly as irritating as a persistent fly.
However, persistent it was, and it turns out for very good reason. So, in the spirit of not judging a book by its cover I took a tentative first plunge back in 2019. I was not only pleasantly surprised, but also totally captivated. It turns out that Psychological Safety despite its unfortunate name, is an incredibly fascinating, exceptionally well-researched and proven driver of employee and organizational performance. It is the articulation of many a workplace conundrum and full of useful insights and solutions. I was hooked from day one.
Resist no more! Trust me, you won’t regret spending 10-minutes reading this one. I’ll teach you what psychological safety is, why it works, how to test for it and how to create it.
The problem is in the name, but don’t let that fool you
Firstly, the word psychological is difficult for those of us who are not expert or experienced in the field of psychology. It feels like an intangible maze of complexity in which one could lose a lot of time, add little value, and possibly make an absolute mess of things. It is no surprise then, that we tend to shy away from it.
Secondly, the word safety conjures up images of hard hats, harnesses, risk assessments and personal protective equipment, something we’ve all had more than our fill of over the past 20+ months. Facemask anyone? Safety is also loaded with a sense that it is a dull but rather irritatingly essential aspect of many workplaces and one that gets in the way of us all just getting stuff done.
Put these two words together and you have an automatic resistance force at play. It is easy to see why many simply avoid acknowledging the topic all together. This is such an unfortunate shame, because it really is worth the time of any leader or manager worth their salt.
What is Psychological Safety?
In short, psychological safety is about candour; creating an environment and culture in which speaking up is encouraged, expected, and rewarded.
“Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”
Amy Edmondson, HBS
Every single conversation I have had with a client in the past six-months has included a concern about a fear culture, employee apathy, a reluctance to contribute and team cohesion issues. These organizations have not accidently hired an entire workforce of introverted, lazy, and difficult employees. Rather, they have inadvertently created a culture of silence in which it pays to keep one’s head down and protect one’s patch.
The thing about psychological safety is that it impacts people of all types in a similar way. Regardless of how confident, bold, or rebellious any employee naturally is, if their workplace lacks psychological safety, you will find them keeping their thoughts and ideas to themselves. This means that you don’t have a problem with your employees, you have a problem with your culture, management, and leadership, and it is here that you need to look in order to fix it.
We must understand that simply hiring great talent is not enough. We must also create the conditions in which the organization can unleash the full potential of that talent. Psychological safety is a critical component for achieving this, so if it isn’t a discussion and action point in your management meetings, you are missing a trick.
Why make psychological safety a priority?
The presence of psychological safety is both positive and valuable on a number of levels, and the absence of it is does not only neutralise these benefits but creates costly and damaging impact too.
“It turns out no-one wakes up in the morning and jumps out of bed because they can’t wait to get to work today to look ignorant, incompetent, intrusive or negative, right?”
Amy Edmondson, HBS
What we see when employees are afraid of humiliation or punitive action is that they;
· stay silent whenever they can
· don’t ask questions
· won’t admit to their weaknesses or mistakes
· don’t offer ideas (especially half-baked ones)
· are reluctant to take risks
· won’t question the status quo
Most worryingly, they won’t do any of these things even if they know there is a very high chance that there will be a negative outcome if the organization continues down the path it is on. This is because non-one will ever know that an employee DIDN’T say something, so there’s no penalty for remaining on mute. In many organizations this is preferable to putting your head above the parapet at the risk of being struck down by a wieldy humiliation or disciplinary ‘bullet’. It is exactly this that Mark Costa articulates as the greatest fear of a CEO…not being told the truth. Unfortunately for CEO’s this problem is rife, and despite 20+ years of research and commentary, it is still present in most organizations. If there hasn’t been a concerted, strategic, and sustained effort to build psychological safety, it is almost certainly missing.
Gallup found that a measly three in 10 U.S. employees strongly agree that at work their opinions seem to count. They went on to estimate that if this number increased to just six in 10, organizations would experience a 27% decrease in employee turnover, 40% decrease in safety related incidents and a 12% increase in productivity.
Other studies have found that psychological safety improves innovation, creativity, ideas quality, resilience, adaptability, trust, engagement, collaboration, process improvement, cost-saving, diversity & inclusivity, retention, and corporate reputation. It has also proven to reduce non-compliance, safety & security risks, breaches, and process failures.
Remember the Volkswagen emissions scandal, known as ‘Dieselgate’? It was a lack of psychological safety that has frequently been highlighted as the cause.
Alas, not mumbo-jumbo after all!
How to test for psychological safety?
It is easy to test for psychological safety. There are validated statements that continue to provide a reliable indicator which are readily available for free. However, before you instruct your HR manager to draft up a staff survey and send it around to your employees, you should consider the following:
1) If there is a lack of psychological safety in the organization, how likely are the employees to respond truthfully to an internally coordinated survey? Maybe a neutral external party would be better placed to do this on your behalf.
2) Psychological safety lives at the team or group level. The need and strategy for improving psychological safety is likely to vary across the organisation. The survey needs to have some demographic questions included to help identify trends for different departments, branches, teams etc.
3) How many other employee surveys need to be completed, or have recently been completed? Is now the right time? Could these questions be included in a broader survey about workplace wellbeing, employee experience, engagement, or the future of work? What is your internal capability and capacity for doing this well? If it is not good, look for external support.
4) How available and capable is your organization to analyse the results, create a strategic way forward and implement it in good time? It is a significant task, that may benefit from external support, not just to get the job done in a timely fashion but to offer some fresh, expert perspectives to help you navigate the way ahead.
5) Ensure there is time to do preliminary communications. Simply sending out an employee survey is unlikely to yield the required response rate. You need to build confidence amongst employees that the topics in the survey are high priority and the organisation is committed to making significant improvements. It needs to be clear that the effort taken to complete the survey will be worthwhile. It will require a comprehensive and multi-channel communications campaign including engaging managers and ensuring they are bought-in and committed to generating results and making changes.
In short, don’t be tempted to rush.
Creating a psychologically safe environment
If your organization is not ready to test for psychological safety, but you want to get started on making some improvements in your team, the following are recommended actions you can take immediately.
- Role-model by owning your mistakes, asking for help, and admitting you weaknesses
- Actively solicit questions, ideas, suggestions, and encourage employees to challenge the status quo
- Reinforce those who make contributions with appropriate rewards and recognition
- Never laugh at or reject an idea or question and ensure other team members don’t either
- Resist the urge to shut employees down who often do make contributions, even if theirs is frequently the first or only voice you hear, these are your psychological safety champions
- Provide multiple channels for employees to make their contributions including anonymous ones if needed
- Provide structured meeting time for constructive dialogue around problem-solving and improvement needs where the emphasis on the team generating solutions collectively
- Replace blame with investigation, as well as a team effort to work out how to avoid the mistake happening again
There are many other ways to build psychological safety, the list above is just a starting point.